26 October 2007

Saying goodbye

Here are my grandfather's rules for living to 100:
1) Take a nap every day.
2) Bourbon at 5:00.
3) Don't eat your vegetables. (Unless they're covered in sauce.)

My fathers' father turned 100 years old last December. We celebrated the centennial that none of us ever doubted alongside his three children and their spouses (and including my divorced mom and her second husband), his then grandchildren (plus nine spouses), and his 22 great-grandchildren. A party complete with a catered outdoor meal and fireworks that lit up mid-winter suburban Phoenix skies where he's spent his last 25 years. A wonderful tribute for a proud and honorable man who despite a remarkable career in business, a life of aviation, world travel, and philanthropy, views his family, from top to bottom, as his lone success.

This past summer, my 100 year old grandfather fell getting out of his car at his summer cottage near Cape Cod. He fractured his pelvis, not badly, but enough to put the family scion into a full-time day care facility for a few weeks and limiting his movement upon returning home to Arizona. It seems that this last injury finally made my grandfather feel his age.

And thus began, at least outwardly, his slow, graceful walk into the proverbial sunset. Unable to get around as he wished, relying on the supporting arms of his oldest daughter and oldest granddaughter, my grandfather's body is at last winding down.

I suppose 100 years is a lot to ask of any body. We all know this, but then again we also knew that nothing would stand in my grandfather's way of reaching his centennial. But now, the next milestone - 200 years - is too much to ask of himself.

I spent three and half days last week visiting my grandfather for what I fully know is the last time. He still retains all his mental acuity - his sense of humor, of politics, of books, of family. He knew me through the haze of his tiring eyes. He asked after my wife and his two great-granddaughters by name. He asked about our jobs, remembering my wife had recently been promoted. He wanted to know if he should send John McCain the money McCain's asking for. (I advised against it, though he pshawed my suggestion of writing the check to Obama instead.) He still carries on a good conversation, though after three or four exchanges, he tires and appears to drift off to sleep.

My father and I talked through my grandfather's apparent mid-conversation naps. My dad leaned in once and asked him, "Dad, when your eyes are closed, are you sleeping, or are you still listening?" To which my grandfather grinned, raised his head, opened his eyes and said, "I've heard every word you've said. It's just not very interesting."

My grandfather's body is simply giving out. It's his heart mostly. The blood isn't pumping well. He's always tired. Any amount of exertion, simply walking to the bathroom or cutting the meat at dinner, tires him. He's not in pain. There is no cancerous rock in his belly slowly and painfully overtaking his organs. He's just tired. And this, I see as a fitting way for him to let go.

You feel his quiet pride when you're with him. And you feel the frustrations of this proud and honorable man, so used to doing things for himself, as he gradually allows others to take control of his life. He doesn't like being cared for, or fussed over, or managed. (He wouldn't let me adjust the bourbon and soda I made him that he said was a bit too strong.) He didn't give in to the notion of 24 hour caregivers until last month. No longer able to control his own bowels and requiring help in cleaning himself up, he simply announced to my aunt and cousin that he didn't want his "nearest and dearest" wiping his ass. The caregivers arrived the next morning.

Now my aunt, my cousin, and the caregivers are in charge of his heart, his breathing, his medications, his bowels, and his food. At some point, when the quality of life is not there for him, he and his doctor will make a decision to discontinue that kind of management. But for now, he delights in family visits and happy hour guests, even when nothing is said. And my visit last week was but one in a parade of family and friends.

He's never spoken much of his faith or what will happen after. One of the night nurses told us that my grandfather woke up in the middle of the night and sat on the edge of the bed talking to himself. He spoke to Martha, his mother, and Edie, his wife (my grandmother). In his apparent sleep, he was asking them if they're going to be there when he arrives, and telling them that he can't wait to see them again.

But when asked by the hospice nurse if he wanted the chaplain to come by just as someone else to talk to, my grandfather emphatically said, "No. I don't want him here." He's even refused the visits of his local pastor, the one who buried my grandmother six years ago. He doesn't need their counsel to feel comfortable in what comes next.

Mostly we sat together. We shared lunches and dinners, the vegetables slathered in homemade hollandaise. We talked. I watched him sleep. I helped him keep the oxygen cannula hooked over his ears. We were simply there with him.

As the moment closed in when I had to leave, I stalled going into his bedroom. It was just past noon and he was still sleeping. I found myself moving so slowly, holding back that moment when I would see him for the last time, when that final goodbye was imminent.

A deep breath and I walked in to the bedroom I almost never entered as a child. I sat next to him and he opened his eyes. "Is it time for you to go already?" he asked. (I remember thinking that statement would've been more appropriate coming from my mouth.) I took his hand and told him I loved him. I told him that my daughters loved him too. I couldn't hold back the tears when I uttered the words, "I love you". Hearing the tears and the muffled snorting in my throat, he said, "I love you, too." He closed his eyes again, and I left, quickly, without looking back wanting to spare him the notion that this was a last goodbye, though I know he's experienced a entire month of final goodbyes from so many of us.

He is such a huge part of my life. Such a tremendous presence. I'm glad I made the trip. It would've been easy to use work or coaching or family as an excuse to put off the visit. I would've regretted it. Not much was said between my Dad and I on the way to the airport. Small talk. I just wanted quiet and was happy that air travel today is such crowded anonymity. I felt pensive, not really wanting to speak with anyone or about anything. Just quiet, remembering the moments over the past near 45 years with him, squaring the image of the tiring man in the bed with the enormous presence he's held throughout my life.

My next visit to Arizona will be different. The place will be empty without him. But I'm hoping, as are all my cousins, and aunts and uncles, and brothers and sister, and all our kids, that the moment will be seeded with the thrill and honor of being able to be part of his life, and the pride of knowing that his legacy continues through our stories and memories of him.

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